By Shane Sims
The first five years of a prison sentence are the most critical. It’s called the “adjustment period”.
During this time the inmate come to grips with the fact that it will be awhile – if ever - before he sees freedom again. This realization is not always well received. A common reaction is violence; towards others or one’s self. One guy I knew reacted by sitting on his bed with a disposable razor and digging into his neck. Fortunately, someone saw him before he struck himself the fatal blow. It was talked about for a couple of days then forgotten. The adjustment to be made by the new inmate is to this type of new norm.
It is an especially volatile period for those who are sentenced to life in prison. When you walk through those gates with more years to serve than you have to live, you are either full of hope or completely devoid of it. There is no in-between. At this point, everything depends upon perception. For many years I have said that I am grateful that much of my formative years were spent in the church, Scouts, youth groups – things that build faith and character – because I would have otherwise been on the hopeless end of things. And I could have easily fallen into the trap that I encountered my first day at Telfair, before I could even get into the door of the orientation dorm.
I had met Skeet during the few weeks that I was housed at Jackson Diagnostics Prison. He was short and muscular, and had been to prison several times, so he was “chain-gang savvy” meaning he knew the lingo, the unspoken rules, and, consequently, how to navigate the environment. But what really drew me to him was his age. He was probably in his mid-thirties; older than most of us in the 160-man warehouse. In the world that I had come from, older usually meant mature and, therefore, trustworthy. I was no longer in that world.
After he was transferred to a permanent prison, I was told by more than one person that Skeet was a “booty bandit”, which is a convict who preys on young and vulnerable inmates. I started working out shortly thereafter. I couldn’t do anything about my age, but I could do something about the vulnerable part. I also had to make some mental adjustments. When I ran into Skeet again in Telfair, it didn’t take him long to realize that some things had changed.
After being assigned, I was escorted to A-1, the new arrival dorm. I hadn’t made it through the sally port when l heard a loud bang on the door. I looked up, and saw none other than Mr. Bandit, himself, looking out at me smiling as if seeing a good friend for the first time in years. I glared back. He was flanked by two or three young guys. When I walked through the door, he literally screamed, “This is my ‘lil nigga right here! He is down with my click!”. His words – or maybe just the sight of him – seemed to have cut me to my core. “I am not your nigga, and I don’t need a click!” I responded. I don’t know whether he saw it in my eyes or heard it in my voice, but he never said anything to me more than “What’s up!” after that. Word of the incident quickly spread around the dorm. I didn’t realize it then, but I had done the absolute best thing that I could have in that situation; I established myself as an individual.
This wouldn’t be the last time that I would have to travel the rocky road of self-determination. And I did so with fierce resolve because I knew what was at stake. It was my life. I had lost it once and I refused to let it happen again. Unfortunately, many of the men around me hadn’t arrived at that place in their lives. I couldn’t understand why they were so easily sucked into gangs, continued to do drugs, and were so prone to violence, knowing the consequences. The constant sight of brick walls, barbed wire fence, and loud bang of locking cell doors day after day were more than enough of a reminder for me. However, my understanding, and perception would soon change.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is program coordinator for People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department